Revolution in Japan

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Asia Chronicle on 8/28/09.

Japan has been a one-party oligarchy for a very long time. This may not be a polite thing to say about a democracy and a U.S. ally. But Japan has been ruled by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for the last 54 years, except for a few nanoseconds after the Cold War when the ruling party temporarily lost its grip on power. Because of this stifling consensus among a small political elite, “Japanese democracy” has an oxymoronic connotation and Japanese politics has been one of the most boring topics in the world.

But that may all change on Sunday. According to the polls, the Japanese are likely to give the ruling party the boot. The opposition Democratic Party is expected to capture a two-thirds majority of the lower house of parliament, which would give it control of the entire Diet. In the American context, this would be as if voters kicked out both the Democrats and Republicans and gave a Senate and House majority to the Green Party.

Japan’s opposition party has benefited largely from public dissatisfaction with the status quo. The sclerotic LDP presides over a patronage system that no longer delivers the goods and an economy that has been hit hard by the global recession. In February, the former LDP finance minister gave a drunken press conference in Rome in February, proving what many secretly suspected: the people in charge of the Japanese economy are not in their right minds. Prime Minister Taro Aso, his poll numbers edging ever bottomward, has tried to revive his fortunes by accusing the Democratic Party of insufficient patriotism for not displaying the Japanese flag and even, improbably, cutting up the flag to make their own party symbol. Like the Republican Party of Sarah Palin and John Ensign, the LDP is its own worst enemy.

Japanese support for the Democratic Party is not all protest politics. There is enthusiasm for the opposition’s promise to clean out the Augean stables of Japanese politics. “The party says it will ban corporate political donations, restrict the ability of retired bureaucrats to find lucrative jobs in industries they regulated and ban hereditary seats in parliament,” reports The Washington Post. It is also promising child support payments to cash-strapped families and more social security funding, both popular policies in a country with a rapidly aging population and a catastrophic birth dearth.

Perhaps most intriguing is the Democratic Party’s foreign policy. The ruling party has long hitched its wagon to the United States. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, wants a more equal relationship with Washington. “The era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end and we are moving away from a unipolar world toward an era of multipolarity,” argues party leader Yukio Hatoyama. An intense debate is taking place within the party over the fate of Japan’s “peace constitution,” which prohibits the country from having offensive military capabilities. Hatoyama has already spoken out against Japan’s military support role in Afghanistan, and a reduction in U.S.-Japanese military cooperation could be in the offing.

Regionally, the Democratic Party would likely guide Japan toward better relations with China. Hatoyama has also vowed not to visit Yasukuni shrine as long as it continues to house the spirits of Japanese war criminals. This could lead to an upturn in Japan-South Korean relations as well.

Political scientists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why Europe, but not East Asia, managed to overcome internal animosities to create a regional organization after World War II. In Europe, Germany played a key role in apologizing and providing reparations for its conduct during the war. It also spent a great deal of political capital to engage East Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union in a multi-tiered Ostpolitik. Japan, by contrast, has continued to be coy about its wartime conduct and, except for occasional forays, has spent very little political capital to build an East Asian community. The bilateral relationship with Washington has always taken precedence.

The Democratic Party might change all that. With words, symbolic acts, and behind-the-scenes diplomacy, Hatoyama might steer Japan back to Asia.

This is far from a done deal. Because it has promised sweeping political and economic changes, however, Japan’s opposition party may have little time or energy left over to help create a new East Asian community that rivals the European Union, however beneficial this development might be for Japan’s economic and geopolitical power. Also, a reduction in the alliance with Washington might push Tokyo toward building up its own military capabilities as a substitute. And that won’t win any friends in Beijing or Seoul.

Still, with the prospect of a Democratic Party victory on Sunday, it is pleasant to contemplate not only a brand new Japan but a brand new Asia as well.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.